Looking for a little lion on rye? Some Simba dim sum? A hearty mane course? Sorry, Tarzan, but it's not a jungle out there, or anyway won't be for much longer. Outraged when she discovered that a multicultural fusion restaurant called Taste & See in Wichita, Kan., planned to serve African lion meat as part of an exotic game dinner, a New Jersey animal lover, Cheryl Semcer, has started a petition on Change.org ("The world's petition platform") demanding that the USDA ban the sale of lion meat in America. (Taste & See chef Jason Febres, deluged with protests, took lion off the menu, though his customers were still able to enjoy kangaroo, alpaca, and water buffalo, among other variety meats.)
It turns out that the Wichita establishment wasn't the only restaurant in this country that was catering with cat. Spoto's The Steak Joint in Dunedin, Fla., about 20 miles northwest of Tampa, had lion on the menu for a while, though now diners there will have to be content with such poor substitutes as black bear, yak, and Burmese python. Dave's Pizza and Burgers in Colonie, N.Y., just outside Albany (the same proprietor previously ran Albany's Burger Centric), was serving a lion burger (for $75!) alongside burgers made from alligator, rattlesnake, llama, goat, and other such creatures, but he has bowed to pressure from critics both local and national and scratched it off the list (though it still appears on his online menu). Last year, Boca Tacos y Tequila in Tucson, Ariz., announced plans to serve lion tacos for one night only, early in 2012, if enough customers signed up by advance order. Instead of orders, the place was deluged with angry phone calls and emails, and gave up the plan.
The African lion is not an endangered species, so it is perfectly legal to raise and butcher lions in this country and sell their meat for food (it reportedly tastes like particularly chewy pork). Exactly where the lion meat that does get sold here comes from is a bit of a mystery, though. One past source, ExoticMeatMarkets.com, which peddles bobcat, beaver, coyote, eland, nutria, and reindeer as well as foie gras, frogs' legs, wild turkey, and ibérico pork, has a large photograph of a lion on the order page of its website, but nary a morsel of the regal feline is to be found anywhere for sale. The company had previously reported, though, that "Our African lions are raised in the state of Illinois." There may or may not be a connection, but the website for Czimer's Game & Seafood in Homer Glen, Ill., about 20 miles southwest of Chicago, does have a product listing for African lion (at prices ranging from $9.95 a pound for premade 1/3-pound burgers — Dave's in New York State was really going to make a killing — to $24.95 a pound for "tender loins"), though a parenthesis notes "not available."
In 2003, interestingly, Czimer's proprietor Richard Czimer was sentenced to six months in federal prison, a $5,000 fine, and 300 hours of community service, and required to make restitution payments of $116,000 to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save the Tiger Fund for his role in an exotic animal trafficking operation. Among other things, Czimer admitted to having bought the carcasses of 16 tigers, four lions, two mountain lions, and one liger (a lion–tiger hybrid), all of whose flesh he sold as… lion meat.
One big issue with the commercial sale of exotic meats, lion and otherwise, is that the source of the animals, even if legal, much less the conditions under which they are slaughtered, is rarely monitored by the USDA, so there are genuine potential health issues involved. Another issue, perhaps of greater concern to the general public, is our emotional attachment to pets and other animals we perceive as "cute" or "noble." There is no rational reason for those of us who eat meat to be fine with consuming cow but balk at chowing down on horse — and if we're fine with wild-shot venison or boar (as many, many hunters and non-hunting food lovers alike most certainly are), then why draw the line at bear or lion?
Indeed, why not lion, if it's not endangered? Because lions are magnificent to look at and the quintessentially wild animals, and because they are, er, "born free?" Probably. Though Cheryl Semcer, who has thus far gathered about 44,000 signatures on her petition to outlaw the sale of lion meat, stresses the health issue, maintaining that "Restaurants shouldn't be risking the health of their customers just for the attention that comes from serving exotic animal meat."
Of course they shouldn't — though one might argue that instead of banning the sale of exotic meats (there is already a thriving black market in those beasts which are endangered), the raising and slaughter of these animals should be open and above board and at least as strictly regulated as the dispatch of pigs and cattle.
But that raises yet another issue: Why would anyone want to eat all these non-standard meats in the first place? I've never eaten lion, but I've had bear and squirrel and kangaroo, and I can't say that any one of them has had any great merit in terms of flavor. Is the appeal simply in eating something that most people don't or can't or prefer not to? If so, then raising and killing lions and the like seems pretty silly, and, well, more than a little pretentious.
Back in the mid-20th century, the Tyrolean -born writer Ludwig Bemelmans, best known for his Madeline children's' books but also a great gourmand and author of much good writing about food, addressed the issue of serving exotic meats in a restaurant in a short story called "The Elephant Cutlet." It was about two men who open an establishment in Vienna called "Cutlets From Every Animal in the World." Their very first customer is an elegant countess who comes in alone, sits down, and promptly orders an elephant cutlet sautéed in butter, covered in spaghetti, with an anchovy and an olive on top. There is consternation in the kitchen, but finally the chef comes out, approaches the countess, and says, "Madame has ordered an elephant Cutlet?" The dialogue proceeds like this:
"Yes," said the Countess.
"With spaghetti and a filet of anchovy and an olive?"
"Madame is all alone?"
"Madame expects no one else?"
"And Madame wants only one cutlet?"
"Yes," said the Lady, "but why all these questions?"
"Because," said the Chef, "because, Madame, I am very sorry, but for one Cutlet we cannot cut up our Elephant."
Likewise, for a couple of burgers or tacos, we should probably let the lion sleep tonight — and wake up growling in the morning.